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Published: Wednesday, 7/19/2006

Highways pave way to profit for North Baltimore niche firm

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Joe Ward grinds a structural part for a bridge at D.S. Brown's factory in North Baltimore. Joe Ward grinds a structural part for a bridge at D.S. Brown's factory in North Baltimore.
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NORTH BALTIMORE, Ohio - As the U.S. interstate highway system turned 50 this year, employees at D.S. Brown Co. had reason to celebrate.

The 116-year-old southern Wood County firm stands to reap millions in added sales of structural bearings, expansion joints, and other parts for rebuilding bridges and roadways in coming years.

"It's a niche business," explained Kirk Feuerbach, 47, president of the firm that is owned by the private investment arm of Bank of America.

"There are probably four to five major companies. We're the largest, with a 40 percent market share."

Larry Wilson, left, and Ray Clark, feed material from an extrusion line onto a large wooden spool. Larry Wilson, left, and Ray Clark, feed material from an extrusion line onto a large wooden spool.
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And business is booming.

"The market has turned very robust this year," the president said, adding that the plant is having trouble keeping up with orders.

Sales will grow 6 to 8 per cent annually in coming years through increased business and acquisitions, Mr. Feuerbach said.

The firm expects 2006 revenues to be in the range of $50 million to $60 million. The firm is in the midst of an expansion at its main plant in North Baltimore that will add 20,000 square feet of manufacturing space and 52 employees to its 140-person local staff over three years .

Feuerbach Feuerbach
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A big catalyst for the growth: passage of a federal transportation bill last year that laid out road and highway spending for five years, the company president explained.

Mannik & Smith Group, a civil engineering firm with offices in Maumee, has used D.S. Brown products in bridge projects.

"They're very well known," said Richard Bertz, senior vice president. "They're very well respected in the industry."

The North Baltimore company has come a long way from its beginnings in 1890 as a manufacturer of matches and buggy whips.

It was started in 1890 by Delmont Samuel Brown in Watertown, N.Y., and moved around 1916 to this village 35 miles south of Toledo.

Over the years, it has made diverse products that once included canvas "turkey saddles" (for protecting prized hens from injury during mating). For a time, it specialized in synthetic rubber products for the construction industry, according to published reports.

Today, D.S. Brown products are being used in Toledo's Veterans' Glass City Skyway, the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

(The latter project near Tacoma, Wash., is the successor to a bridge whose vibration-induced collapse in 1940 was captured in a shaky film that shows up often in disaster specials).

D.S. Brown products, which include steel and rubber components, typically represent 2 to 4 percent of a bridge's cost. From a $200 million bridge, for example, the firm would reap $4 million to $8 million.

Besides local operations, D.S. Brown has a plant near Minneapolis and a 12-person sales office in Singapore that serves China, India, Thailand, and other Asian nations. Its worldwide workforce is 275.

Although North Baltimore may seem like a remote spot for a firm with an international presence, Mr. Feuerbach said officials are happy to be here.

"The logistics are fantastic," he said, citing I-75 and the Ohio Turnpike. "There is a great work ethic in northwest Ohio."

Bank of America bought D.S. Brown in 1998 from the private equity group Stonebridge Partners, of White Plains, N.Y. That firm purchased it from the descendants of the founder in 1992.

"They're very low-key," said Thomas Blaha, executive director of the Wood County Economic Development Commission. "They're a good manufacturing company and a good-paying company," he said. New jobs will pay about $15 an hour.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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